IF GEORGE W. BUSH is elected president, he'll have many people to thank. One of them is Osama Siblani. During Bush's October 5 meeting with Arab-American leaders at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, Michigan, Siblani told the Texas governor about two top concerns of Arab Americans: the use of ethnic profiling by aviation officials, which leads many Arab Americans to be held up for questioning at airports, and the use of "secret evidence" by law enforcement, which has led many Arab Americans to be wrongly charged as suspected terrorists. "This is an insult to our Constitution," Siblani says he told Bush, "and a scar on our civil rights."
Fast forward to the second presidential debate, six days later. Jim Lehrer asked Bush and Gore about racial profiling. Both condemned it, but only Bush said we've got to "do something" about airport profiling and the use of "secret evidence," which he said had unfairly demonized "Arab Americans." The comment received little attention in the post-debate spin. But among Arab Americans, who'd never before been singled out in a presidential debate, it was, as one political operative put it, "the shot heard 'round the world."
This is a big deal because Bush and Gore are tied in Michigan -- where Arab Americans make up 4 percent of the electorate -- and each needs the state's 18 electoral votes to win. Since Bush's comment has propelled him to near-mythic status among Arab Americans, his 12-point lead among them, 40 percent to 28 percent, could double. He's just won an endorsement from the Arab-American and Chaldean Leadership Council, an umbrella group of twenty Arab-American organizations, as well as the Democrat-leaning Arab American Political Action Committee and the Detroit-based Arab American News. According to Siblani, the paper's editor, "Bush has captured the hearts of Arab Americans."
That's bad news for Gore, who's so intent on winning Arab American votes he's retained James Zogby, a big shot in Arab American circles, to be his senior adviser on ethnic affairs. He's also issued some mild statements about violence in the Middle East, in hopes of not offending Arab Americans, and even consulted pro-Israel leaders beforehand to see how mild a statement they could tolerate.
But the balancing act failed. Not only does Gore have to deal with Arab giddiness over Bush, but also an energetic e-mail campaign that calls itself "Arab Americans Against Gore-Lieberman." The organizer, a 30-year-old Democrat named Ramzy Kanaan, launched the effort following the second presidential debate, to protest Gore's views on the Middle East. In just a week, Kanaan received over 8,200 favorable responses.
The net effect of all this activity could be to swing Michigan, and perhaps the election, to Bush. Then again, Arab Americans are hardly the only ethnic group being courted by the two candidates. In addition to the traditional outreach to blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, both campaigns are seeking the support of Americans who trace their ancestry to Central and Eastern European nations like Albania, Belarus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. The logic is simple. In swing states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Central and Eastern Europeans represent between 12 and 18 percent of the population.
They are also thought to be up for grabs, as their views aren't perfect fit for either party (largely Catholic or Orthodox, they tend to the right on social and cultural issues and lean left on economics). In years past they flocked to the GOP because of its anti-communism. But as the relevance of that issue has faded, they began voting Democratic again, to the great benefit of Bill Clinton, among others.
This year, neither Gore nor Bush has won their hearts, and there's been some grumbling from ethnic leaders that the outreach from both candidates has paled in comparison with other presidential campaigns ("worse than ever," according to Roma Hadzewycz, editor of the Ukrainian Weekly). The response over the past few months has been a series of gestures, most of them designed to portray Bush or Gore as an unswerving ally of "the old country."
Heading up the GOP's Central and Eastern European outreach efforts is Edward Derwinski, a former Chicago congressman who served as secretary of veterans' affairs in the Bush administration. Having been around ethnic politics in every presidential election since 1956, Derwinski says the Bush campaign is handling its outreach efforts as well as any presidential campaign he's seen, for the simple reason that it's "using fewer Washington phonies." He says the party's outreach consists of advertising in the ethnic media (television, newspapers, radio), both in English and the native tongue, and says he's been promised a "substantial sum" to make the ad buys.
The Gore campaign's efforts are led by Hady Amr, an Arab American who serves as national director for ethnic outreach. In addition to advertising in the ethnic media, which will be funded by the Democratic National Committee, the Gore campaign is also deploying surrogates like Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, who's of Lebanese descent, and Dennis Kucinich, a Cleveland congressman who's part Croatian. Amr is also working with Tom Albert, the DNC's director of ethnic outreach, to put together members of each ethnic group and give them the campaign's imprimatur. One such group, recently formed, is "Croatian Americans for Gore-Lieberman."
Both campaigns are sponsoring events with representatives of these ethnic groups. On October 15, for example, roughly 150 people, representing a smorgasbord of Central and Eastern European countries, spent two hours in Cleveland's Hofbrau Haus restaurant listening to Ohio senator George Voinovich (Serbian-Slovenian) and Reagan secretary of state George Shultz (WASP) tout Bush and preview his foreign policy priorities.
A similar meeting was held two days earlier at the White House. Leon Fuerth, Gore's long-time national security adviser, spent 45 minutes with a non-partisan coalition of Central and Eastern European groups. Fuerth, according to someone who attended the meeting, was receptive to the coalition's call for further NATO expansion and additional assistance to Central and Eastern European nations. But like his boss, he was also deeply partisan, casting congressional Republicans as isolationist and even blaming them for a proposal by Maxine Waters, a liberal Democratic congresswoman, to steer foreign aid away from Europe and to Africa. (In July, Bush advisers Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Zoellick, and Stephen Hadley met with the same coalition.)
Americans of Polish descent make up the largest part of the Central and Eastern European mosaic, which no doubt explains Dick Cheney's Labor Day attendance at the Taste of Polonia festival on Chicago's heavily Polish northwest side. He danced the polka, served hot cabbage rolls, and delivered a speech in which he said meeting Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was one of the highlights of his tenure as defense secretary. He closed by saying, "sto lat," a Polish toast which roughly translates as, "may you live 100 years."
Tipper Gore and Hadassah Lieberman also attended the Taste of Polonia, but whatever goodwill they earned was undone within days. On September 15, the American Center of Polish Culture held a glitzy dinner at Union Station in Washington to honor Walesa. Bush sent a letter, which was read aloud at the event, praising Walesa as a "true hero of democracy" and highlighting the "deep and abiding friendship" between the United States and Poland. Gore's campaign, by contrast, didn't respond to any of the four invitations it received to attend the dinner, a luncheon, or a church service, and didn't bother to send a testimonial letter either. Gore was in Washington the entire day. "Outrageous," says Kaya Mirecka-Ploss, head of the American Center of Polish Culture and a Democrat.
No matter how well Bush and Gore handle their outreach, they still face significant hurdles with certain groups. Some Ukrainian Americans are skeptical of Bush, for example, owing to his use of advisers who had a hand in his father's 1991 speech in Kiev, in which he lectured Ukrainians to avoid "suicidal nationalism" (perhaps to make amends, next week is "Ukrainian Culture Week" at the Bush Library in College Station, Texas). Similarly, a number of Serbian Americans told me that while they have mixed emotions about Bush, they will find it extraordinarily difficult to support Gore, given last year's bombing of Belgrade by the Clinton administration, and Gore's reliance on Richard Holbrooke for advice about the Balkans. That may explain why Cheney sat down for a fish dinner with eight Serbs at Serb Memorial Hall in Milwaukee on October 13.
But it's Arab Americans who must be Gore's biggest concern in the final two weeks of the campaign. He had a meeting planned with them for October 13, but canceled it to return to Washington when violence erupted in the Middle East. His campaign hopes the meeting will be held before Election Day. The sooner the better.
Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.